A new museum opened a few months ago in East London telling the history of a major RAF airfield that helped defend London during WW2 – RAF Hornchurch.
The airbase, RAF Hornchurch took over a site that had been farmland, and during WW1 as an airfield, but it was formally developed as an RAF base due to its strategic position to defend London from approaches along the Thames. The base eventually closed in 1962, and while some of the base was used for housing and a hospital, the rest was a gravel mine and dumping site, until it was converted into a public park in the early 1980s.
Around the same time the park was being created, a local school caretaker, Ted Exall spotted some military mementoes being thrown out, and started collecting. Some 30 years later, that much-enlarged collection was looking for a home to go on public display.
As part of a planning agreement with the housing development that’s replacing the old hospital, the Hornchurch Aerodrome Historical Trust has been given a 1930s building close to the former RAF base, and after a few years of fundraising and preparation work, and a pandemic, the museum opened in June this year.
It’s also a surprisingly large museum collection that not only fills eight large rooms but overflows into the corridors and staircases as well. There’s so much here to see that it’s overwhelming at times as to how they managed to collect it all. Not just artefacts and documents, but a huge amount of personal history and stories of the people who served at the nearby base.
There are themes to the display, ranging from the early days in WW1, to the interwar years, the Home Front, Bomber Command, maps, the Battle of Britain and so many cases full of ephemera from tea services to clothing.
Out the back is an education centre, a cafe — and coming soon an Anderson Shelter and a Tett Turret.
It’s a really amazingly impressive collection, and you can either slowly wander around simply soaking up the display or arrive with a determined plan to research military history. I comfortably soaked up an hour in the museum, and barely scratched the surface of what’s on display.
The Heritage Centre is currently open Sat and Sun 11am-4pm, and entry is £5 per adult or £20 for unlimited visits for a year. It’s about a ten-minute walk from Hornchurch tube station (turn right on leaving), and very easy to spot with the RAF flags flying outside.
As you are nearby, it’s worth paying a visit to the country park, as not only does the perimeter road still survive, as a pedestrian path, but there’s also a bit of a trail to follow as quite a bit of the old defences are still in situ, from pillboxes to machine-gun emplacements.